Changing Roles in the Local Food Economy | Civil Eats

Changing Roles in the Local Food Economy

The DIY craze has shacked up with the local food movement to produce some inspiring examples of entrepreneurialism: Mason jar magic made by suburban fruit salvagers powered by pedals; workshops on wild-crafting, axe-making, rooftop bees and city-living chickens; lecture series that focus on the how-to rather than just why, when and where; and more.

But we can’t just take pictures of these ingenious innovators for the glossies and call our work finished. We have so much creativity (and cabbage) fermenting at the intersection of craft, food, and agriculture–now we need to connect the dots.

Our spirit and gumption produce marketable ideas and we must distill the unique and visionary experiences into capacity-building structures to create long-term stability for our farmers,  eaters, and land. Our pet projects and pop-ups can morph into replicable systems, operations, and communications strategies so our movement can evolve into a true revolution.

An economy is a system of production and consumption and distribution. The local and organic food movement has developed a solid set of best practices for production, as exemplified by our National Organic Program standards and older, more venerated third party certification programs. We have proven the power of consumption of our wares with sales of organic food reaching almost $25 billion in 2009. Now we need to focus on the system of distribution, which is not simply the means of transportation. For our revolution, distribution is the act of transporting our objectives, mission, and human capital.

The first building block of our new food economy is defining our roles and job descriptions, so we can divide and conquer, and share each others’ workloads. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, has identified that consumers must be “co-producers” in order for good, clean, and fair food to permeate our markets. In practice, I’d say that means our eaters must turn into farmers, our chefs into ranchers, our butchers into distributors–and we all must teach each other. We have the demand, we have the supply, now we need to get out the pencil and craft paper and rewrite the distribution, starting with our jobs.

Here are our jobs as defined in the old food economy:

The farmer farms
The butcher processes.
The distributor moves product and creates new markets.
The chef prepares and cooks.
The consumer eats.

Here they are in the new food economy:

The farmer farms, processes, prepares, and teaches distributors.
The butcher processes, creates new markets, and teaches consumers.
The distributor moves product, processes, farms, and teaches chefs.
The chef prepares and cooks, farms, creates new markets, and teaches butchers.
The consumer eats, moves product, processes, and teaches farmers.

And everyone eats.

Let’s bring back the guilds, the grange, the purveyor, the merchant, and the artisan, so we have both craft and community intrinsic to our livelihoods again. Let’s renovate these old world terms for new world applications. Let’s redefine the jobs together, and imbue teaching in each role. Our revised positions will become the foundation of a truly functional new food economy.


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We ask the farmer to interpret herself not as someone who masters just tractors and turnips. She commandeers the art of business plans and projected budgets and Quickbooks and Excel so that she may always adequately predict revenue even when she can’t predict the weather. She learns to love social media, and understand how email, blog, use Facebook and Twitter to create buzz about her beets. She thinks of value added products as part of every good farmer’s portfolio and saves money to build a commercial kitchen even before purchasing a new BCS tractor. She combines forces with her neighbors and extends the CSA model geographically, sharing the weight of production and administration across microclimates (see Two Small Farms in California).

She believes in collaborative risk-sharing ventures through farmer-owned cooperatives (see Organic Valley in Wisconsin). She knows that wholesale markets reach different constituencies than high dollar direct retail markets do and that it is a farmer’s job to actively build those diverse audiences for the health of the movement. She advocates for federal dollars to teach her these business skills on tax-payer dime, like an insurance policy for the national food supply. She cannot rest on heirloom tomato laurels and simply farm, she needs to farm and teach and calculate and market and sell and fight simultaneously.


We ask the butcher to reinvigorate the art of his trade. Art comes from inspiration and the butcher uses the field as his muse, drawing upon an understanding of what happens before slaughter in order to treat his commodity right. Butchers teach how to braise cartilaginous off-cuts to make them supple and care about how the chef will make her profit margin on the various exciting cuts hiding inside the shoulder or the round. She comes to family meal to teach us how to sell. The butcher creates feedback loops from the get-go, soliciting responses in a formal way and distilling them for his ranchers, so that they may adjust their rotational grazing practice to produce more inter-muscular marbling. He takes an extern from culinary school on his kill floor. He promotes exchange between trades and teaches butchering skills to farmers, not just wealthy dinner party hosts (see North Carolina Choices and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems).


We ask the distributor to understand himself not just as a means of transportation but a means of transformation. He encourages exchange with the farmer, and administrates it well. He is flexible, taking on smaller accounts and balancing them against bigger ones, finding outlets for the lesser volume at a higher price point, and making his money on the larger, heftier clients. He values edging an edgy product into a market at a loss, because he believes in the long-term beneficial effects. He contract farms, promising to purchase from growers at a set cost in order to create new market demand for heritage or heirloom or just plain well-grown (see Destiny Organics in Georgia).  He demands market traceability and farm identity so he can sell it (see the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont).

The new distributor thinks of himself as a translator, one who speaks the language of both producer and consumer fluently. He explores online solutions with easy-to-use back end tools for farmers, chefs, customers. He has the savvy to attract both VC and grant money to fund his ideas, and sets up his business with a 501(c)3 arm. Chameleon-like, he tweaks systems to get local growers into institutions and schools instead of just fancy restaurants (see Market Mobile in Rhode Island and Bon Appétit Management Company).


We ask the chef to think like a rancher. Restaurants and establishments must change their meat purchasing systems to bring in whole and half carcasses and not just suckling pigs and spring lambs but cows, to accommodate cash flow realities of small-scale producers. The chef expands her model and invests more capital to achieve an economy of scale that works for producer and restaurateur both (see Farm 255 and Farm Burger in Georgia). She attacks her administrative duties as aggressively she slams the post-shift pickle-back. In order to make cash flow and profitability work on regular restaurant margins, yet support local producers, she (chef, not GM) calculates the potential revenue from a well-diversified menu that utilizes that whole cow throughout it.

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Housemade charcuterie, pickles and preserves are staples of her offerings, not because they are trendy but because she must make money on the five pig heads in the freezer and 20 pounds of daikon radish in the walk-in.  She connects with local schools–law schools, ag schools, business schools–to help rear a new kind of eater/entrepreneur.  She understands seed sovereignty and the caliber of holistic agrarian pride it foments in its fruit as well as its planter. And, of course, she saves her own seed (see Sean Brock in South Carolina).


We ask ourselves, the consumers, to widen our palates and change preconceptions of taste to make eating synonymous with activism. There is collective purchasing power in neighborhood buying clubs, cow-pools, and, yes, even in box store organics. They make eating well the same thing as eating frugally. We can argue to revive home economics as mandatory curriculum in our schools, to teach preservation skills so that our children don’t pay $50 for a one-hour canning workshop as grown-ups. We can remember how to salt the cod, how to cherish the broccoli stems, how to freeze the water we cooked our beans in.

We can have a backyard bucket that rears our potatoes, even when we don’t have a backyard. We can take small steps, choose singular battles, ask questions, absorb hypocrisy, and read labels (but we can still love Cheetos too). We can push our food critics to cross lines and think about provenance and politics when talking ingredients and recipes (see Mark Bittman) We can make it fun and we can make fun of ourselves as we learn to navigate through it all (see Portlandia).

This system of distribution trades in the currency of skills, education, and, yes, food too, in order to connect production and consumption. We respond to corporate agribusiness consolidation with our own re-verticalization of the system and our plans reach across the high-tensile fenced boundaries of  “farm” or “restaurant” or “truck.” Our managerial structures have flexible hierarchies that bend to award merit in unforeseen people and places. Our supply chains have multiple vectors, our markets are diversified, and deep education is a part of each sector, the oil for every cog in the machine. And in doing such, we can best appreciate the resources, metrics, and methods capitalism gave us by using them to define our new food economy, inside and out.

Olivia Sargeant is a local food market-maker, working as a consultant to build models for regional food economies through operations systems, communications, and education. She is a founding partner of Farm 255, a unique farm-AND-table restaurant in Athens, Georgia and its partner farm, Full Moon Farms. She and her partners recently opened a second establishment Farm Burger, and simultaneously began Moonshine Meats, a cooperative of producers that supplies both the restaurant community and local families through its CSA. She currently splits time between the Bay Area and the southeast, and continues to farm the land on her days off. Read more >

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  1. Bill McCann
    Thank you for the great article. Your are speaking my language. I am in my sixties now, so I am seeing some things come back around, but seemingly with a little more thought and care involved. When I started out in the meat business back in the early seventies, it was common to see band saws, and grinders in restaurant kitchens. With the advent of boxed boneless cuts of beef, and the proliferation of chain restraurants, these small butcher shops went away, and along with them those beautiful stockpots that used all of those bones and trimmings. It is time for the old farts like me to share the bits of usable information that we have in whatever way we can with those who want to learn.What you are talking about are actually "conservitive" values. Where are the conservitives on this.
  2. what a great read! i love how across the board everyone becomes an educator. well done o*.
  3. steph lane
    let's not forget the last piece in the food system cycle! where does the waste go? who's composting? who's using the waste to grow more food, and do more co-producing?

    some of the most invisible food system jobs are waste related jobs: for instance,

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